Imagine the latest videotaped message from Osama bin Laden. He's scowling and raising a finger, but instead of taking aim at Americans he's holding forth on the bleaching of Muslim women's eyebrows.
While most Westerners think of religious edicts -- or fatwas -- as orders to fight Americans and infidels, Muslim scholars, evangelists and spiritual leaders across the globe issue them on a daily basis -- on eyebrow bleaching and hundreds of other mundane topics.
With the advent of the Internet, fatwas have been transformed from handwritten local edicts to an online phenomenon that helps hundreds of thousands of Muslims far from home find balance between their lives in secular countries and their desire to keep to the tenets of Islam.
Ask-Imam.com, for example, allows Muslims from around the globe to ask the South African Mufti Ebrahim Desai a range of fatwa questions.
A young student from the United States, knowing the Islamic prohibitions on swine, asks if it is permissible to perform an autopsy on a fetal pig in his science class.
"Would it be wrong to dissect it if I wore gloves?" the student asks. Not one to stand in the way of science, the religious scholar says it's acceptable, or hallal, to dissect a pig, but only "for research purposes."
Mufti Desai often finds himself in situations where he sounds less like a religious leader and more like a physician's assistant or sex therapist.
A financial fatwa site, muslim-investor.com, handles questions from Muslims seeking practical information about banking, finance and insurance.
Potential investors ask Sheikh Yusuf Talal DeLorenzo, an American and member of the Shariah supervisory boards of Islamic financial institutions worldwide, a bevy of business-related queries about stocks, regulating profits and retirement plans.
Sheikh DeLorenzo explains to one curious Muslim why hedging, a strategy designed to minimize exposure to an unwanted business risk while still allowing the business to profit, is against Islamic principles.
He says the practice leads "to undue speculation, which is the practical equivalent of gambling," but clarifies his point by stating "even so, hedging, in the sense of risk management, is not prohibited outright because the management of risk may take many forms."
On Islamonline.net, an avid martial artist from the United Kingdom wonders if bowing before a match with an opponent is off-limits because the movement closely resembles a portion of prayer known as Rukuh.
"If this practice is meant to be an act of worship, it is impermissible for a Muslim to involve in," writes Sheikh Faysal Mawlawi, deputy chairman of the European Council for Fatwa and Research. Sheikh Mawlawi goes on to say if the practice is meant to show mutual respect between players and does not mock prayer, it's permissible.
The online advisers often try to find precedent in either the Quran or the Sunnah and Hadith, which chronicles the actions and sayings of the prophet Muhammad. Using those as his guides, the mufti renders responses referring to verses within the Quran or specific actions the prophet may have taken during his lifetime to confront similar problems.
A 24-year-old from the United Arab Emirates asks whether reading a certain Hadith, known as a Darood, 500 times will help her find an upstanding man.
"My parents are tensed about my marriage," the woman pleads. "I myself feel lonely at times."
The mufti, who plays matchmaker, judge and even marriage counselor, reassures her that finding a partner takes patience and that invoking the name of God and his prophet 500 times would not hinder her quest for a long-term relationship.
Struck with feelings of having nowhere to turn, many Muslim visitors of these sites will entrust the muftis and imams with decisions that could mean the alienation of a loved one, a career change or whether saying cheese at a photo shoot could mean eternal damnation.
On the widely read and heavily translated Web site www.islam-qa.com, fatwa seekers can find answers to their questions in seven different languages. Fatwas are dispensed in Arabic, English, French, Urdu, Indonesian, Mandarin and Spanish.
Muslims seek out wardrobe suggestions and often quiz sheikhs on the site about pant lengths, high heels and neckties.
"With regard to neckties, if a person can do without them, this is better, but if he has to wear them there is nothing wrong," answers Sheikh Muhammed Salih Al-Munajjid.
"Many Westerners and Americans seem to think that fatwa issuance is only associated with violence and so-called jihad," said As'ad AbuKhalil, a professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus.
In fact the concept evolved over centuries, becoming important at a time when Islam had a more centralized hierarchy and the Ummah, or nation of Muslims, spread from Spain and northern Africa across much of Asia.
In 1989, perhaps the first of the most famous fatwas ever issued was proclaimed on Radio Tehran by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who called for the death of author Salman Rushdie for his book "The Satanic Verses," claiming it was blasphemous. Fatwas by bin Laden in 1996 and 1998 called for going to war with the West and in particular the United States.
Once relegated to universities, courtrooms and mosques, fatwas were kept in record books and left for interpretation by latter generations of imams, muftis and mullahs. Now, though the practice of recording fatwas and filing fatwas that way has not disappeared, it has been partly replaced by television evangelists, legal scholars and even terrorists who are using the edicts to push agendas or satisfy a following.
"There is an absence of a central authority in Islam that defines who has a right to issue these fatwas. So there is varied interpretation that can allow ... a fanatic like bin Laden to enter the fray of fatwa issuance," said Mr. AbuKhalil. It also allows all manner of irate, and sometimes illogical, preachers at storefront mosques and faceless muftis to issue orders from the corners of cyberspace.
"Ninety-five percent of the rules are clear and 5 percent is what is left to interpretation," said Ahmed Abdelwahab, former president of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. "Sometimes when there are some matters that need explanation, which is not answered clearly by the Quran or Sunnah, one must go to scholars to give opinions about these matters. But this scholarly opinion is still not obligatory."
Religious Muslims then base their opinions or actions on a particular mufti's or scholar's ruling. Sometimes they seek out more than one source, like a patient seeking second opinions for a particular ailment.
"It is very hard to decide who has the authority to issue fatwas," said Ahmad Dallal, associate professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown University. "Individuals are ultimately bestowed with authority by some sort of consensus by the community at large or more importantly the community of scholars like in academia."
One such source, revered for its long-standing expertise, is Al-Azhar University, associated with the Al-Azhar mosque in the heart of Cairo, Egypt. Considered one of the oldest institutions of higher learning on the entire globe, Al-Azhar has a storied library with thousands of fatwas issued since its inception more than 1,000 years ago.
Determining which Muslim can directly influence another Muslim's life can be quite complicated in the 21st century, with no authority comparable to the Catholic Church's papacy. The diaspora of Muslims over hundreds of years led to the foundation of Muslim hubs in almost every continent.
Leaders in Sunni or Shiite camps would rule on similar issues and reach divergent answers based on the questions posed, region and time period. Muslims in the modern world are now faced with choosing between an assortment of leaders.
"Osama bin Laden is a modern phenomenon with a postmodern reading of Islam," Mr. Dallal said. "People who issue fatwas have an audience and the process is different now with popular preachers with apolitical themes dealing with mundane issues such as divorce or mortgages.
"They could have a large weekly audience yet they could hold very little scholarly weight."
While bin Laden may never actually challenge Lee Press-On Nails, larger questions loom within the circle of the Muslim Ummah, like if hair transplantation is allowed or if using steroids to build muscle as an athlete would be considered blasphemous.
By fatwa, hair transplants are fine, provided it is "the hair of animals or synthetic hair." Steroids are OK only if "prescribed by a doctor or a fitness trainer."
Moustafa Ayad can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1731.